Monday, February 11, 2013

Practice Makes Perfect

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously makes the claim that the key to success in any field is putting in around 10,000 hours of practice. Native intelligence matters, but not nearly as much as many people think.  Practice--and the willingness to practice long hours--is often what sets apart the very highest achievers.  Indeed, one of the guiding principles of the flipped classroom is that practice makes perfect--or, at least, makes for deeper learning and better grades.  Yet practice is often what our students resist the most and are least well-trained to do.  By shifting content delivery out of class, we instructors can be present with our students while they practice recalling and applying the content they learned outside of class.

This in class practice takes many forms: i>clicker questions and opinion polls; class discussion; and peer instruction.  As more BYOD technologies come on the market, like Learning Catalytics, I expect that the in class experience will become ever more interactive and sophisticated.  This in class practice of content is crucial to student learning.  In a history class like mine, however, much of this practice depends first of all on a clear understanding and ability to recall the basic facts.  Thus, I need to spend at least some time making sure that they are understanding key concepts and ideas (and highlighting certain people/events/concepts as important to know).

Unfortunately, these sorts of questions can become tedious very quickly, even when discussion questions are interspersed.  In the fall, I saw that the students came to dislike the i>clicker questions and viewed them as nothing more than a way for me to take attendance (and catch them out for coming to class late or leaving early).  Part of the problem was that my i>clicker questions focused too much on quizzing facts.  In redesigning the class for the spring, I realized that I could kill two (or, really, about five) birds with one stone by integrating weekly short quizzes into the assessments.  In addition to the graded 12 question quiz (10 min.), I also post a practice quiz of about 25 questions.  I draw a few of the graded quiz questions from the practice quiz to incentivize the students to do the practice quiz.  By shifting this kind of content practice to a highly structured online activity, I am able to use class time to focus i>clicker questions on things other than simple recall (though I still include 1-2 of those just to keep students on their toes).  Now I use them to initiate a debate, to get a discussion of a complex issue started (e.g. should the Romans have sowed Carthage's fields with salt?)

Something I am realizing is that, for my subject, there are different kinds of practice that are necessary for success in the course.  Some kinds, such as recall of basic facts, is better done online while practice with conceptual knowledge and application of those facts is best done in class or on the online discussion board.  The challenge is motivating the students to engage in the practice when they aren't being observed.  My solution, which seems to be working very well thus far, was to let them see how much easier the graded quiz is when they have done the practice quiz, seen some of the questions, etc.  We can see on Blackboard which students have done the practice quiz (but not anything about their results--I deliberately made that hidden so that they would not feel self-conscious).  One of my TAs is keeping track of this data so that we can correlate it with quiz performance. 

On this same issue, we are releasing a data bank of possible short answer questions, about 100 for the first midterm.  From this set of 100 questions, we will take 8 for the exam.  Once again, the message we are trying to send is that learning is about practice and effort.  We expect that the students will create a Google doc for the class and that some students will try to just memorize the answers.  I am confident, though, that the number of potential questions is large enough that if one is just trying to memorize answers, they are unlikely to stick in the memory.  Each week, we will add more and more questions to this databank, and the short answer portion of the exam is cumulative so they will have to keep that knowledge relatively fresh.  But, if they put in the practice, they will almost certainly do well on the assessments.

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